“Lead by the experiential nature of a darshan, this series explores the delicate relationship between photography and representation. It is imperative to consider what causes us to tell stories or what compels us to delve back into our subconscious searching for an exposed nerve. Having left a ritual driven community in India, my move to the U.S. precipitated an enormous cultural shift. It was this cultural paralysis that motivated me to use my one medium of worship—the camera—to study, construct and deconstruct the mythologies of my land.”
God in the Photo
By Stephen Pinson
In a much-discussed scene in Anand Patwardhan’s 1994 documentary film Trial by Fire (1994), the filmmaker/narrator asks Godavari, a cook from the village of Deroala in Rajasthan to comment on a vertical diptych that portrays, through a mix of photomontage and painting, a smiling eighteen-year-old Roop Kanwar on the funeral pyre of her recently deceased husband. Below this image, the young widow is depicted engulfed in stylized flames, apparently set ablaze by a floating goddess who directs a beam of light toward her haloed head. A temple in the distance consecrates this ceremonial sati, or immolation by fire, by which Roop Kanwar became a sati mata, or “pure mother.”
Pressing Godavari to see the apparent fakery of the image, the narrator of the film asks her if it is possible to make a photograph of god. She responds affirmatively, suggesting that even if we don’t see god, the photo can nevertheless show him: “If you couldn’t see god [in the photo], how would people know how she was burned, [and] that it was by god’s rays?”[i] This simple question, in the context of the film, can be interpreted as evidence of the villagers’ complicit role in the young woman’s death (i.e., Godavari doesn’t see reality); on the other hand, it imbues photography (and by extension the filmmaker’s own medium) with a power beyond the immediately perceptible: god is in the photograph because the photograph shows god.
Leaving aside the harrowing context of this exchange, the Rajasthani cook’s laconic response illuminates the complex relationship between viewer and photograph in Manjari Sharma’s remarkable series, Darshan. In this ambitious project, Sharma painstakingly created photographic representations of nine Hindu deities. Each photograph required a large production crew comprising dozens of stylists, designers, makeup and prop artists who worked under Sharma’s direction for several weeks in order to transform a carefully selected model into the chosen god; about twelve exposures were made at each shoot, from which one final frame was selected.
In interviews and statements about the series, Sharma has said that the idea was precipitated by her move from Mumbai to the United States in 2001 when, after earning a degree in visual communications at S.V.T. College, she enrolled at the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio to pursue a BFA in photography. Feeling isolated in her new environment, Sharma recalled visiting Hindu temples with her parents when she was younger and realized that she could emulate the same experience in museums and galleries. She didn’t always feel the same ritualistic and sensorial connection, or darshan, as she did as a child in front of painted or sculpted effigies of gods so, like many transplanted artists, Sharma eventually processed this culture shock through her own art. The result was the series Darshan.
A Sanskrit word that literally means “sight” or “vision,” darshan indicates an epiphany, or manifestation of the divine, in which it is equally important to be seen by the divinity as to see it. This multisensory corporeal experience, or what Christopher Pinney calls “corpothetics,” is capable of transforming both the image and its viewer, and changes meaning depending on the given context.[ii] For Sharma, Darshan ideally should be viewed as large-format, almost life-sized prints displayed in an elaborate installation that evokes a Hindu temple, including the requisite incense, lamps, and invocations: “A darshan, to me, has always been in the context of Hindu worship, but I think a darshan is a moment in which you’re altered forever,” she said. “For one moment, a combination of things you can’t quite recreate changes you.”[iii]
Sharma’s darshan, of course, is instigated by photography, a medium not typically associated with divine representation (even the goddess depicted in the image with Roop Kanwar is painted into the scene). This explains why, at first sight, Sharma’s creations are so disarming. They are hard to pin down because they don’t fit neatly into common pictorial categories. The images seem both real and not real—Sharma has referred to them as unreal moments fashioned from concrete reality. At the same time, careful inspection reveals certain details (the cotton-like clouds surrounding Lord Brahma; visible brushstrokes on some of the painted scenery) that belie pure digital fabrication. As Malcolm Daniel has stated, the “images hover between the traditional art they reference and something wholly inventive, between constructed fiction and ‘straight’ photography, and between sincere spiritual expression and kitsch.”[iv]
The element of kitsch is in fact very important for Darshan, because it is through their appeal to popular Indian forms that the images remain both light-hearted and relatable. Sharma’s casting calls, detailed set designs, and ornate costumes evoke folk re-enactments, or lila, which recount the lives and legends of gods such as Durga and Rama and are performed during the autumn festival of Navratri. The photographs themselves, in the way that they are produced and circulated, participate in the vernacular economy of so-called “calendar art,” “bazaar art,” or “god posters.” Like these colorful, mass-produced religious pictures, the gods of Darshan exist in various formats and are likely seen by most viewers as printed reproductions in books or magazines, or as digital surrogates online, where they are often joined by production shots and behind-the-scenes video by Roberto Falluggio that show how the images were made.[v] If these various platforms seem at odds with Sharma’s ideal viewing aesthetic in a museum/temple, they nevertheless add human interest and a kind of “realism” that underscores that these gods are also people. This type of realism might be better conveyed by the Hindi word sajivta, which can be translated as “livingness” or “lifelikeness.”[vi] As summed up by Kajri Jain in her study of bazaar art, what’s “at issue here is not the reality of the gods, but how alive they are: how the image brings them to life.”[vii] In other words, god is in the photograph because the photograph shows god.
Ultimately, Manjari Sharma’s Darshan complements and, as photography, complicates the religious art from which it draws inspiration. Through various iterations and across different platforms, her deities reinvigorate and respiritualize a longstanding practice by which printed images are consumed. If calendar art and other traditional forms of media have played an important role in fashioning India’s postcolonial national identity, as recent studies suggest, then Darshan belongs to the current vanguard of Indian art that embraces and adapts these traditional forms by presenting them in a thoroughly contemporary idiom.[viii]
[i] Kajri Jain, Gods in the Bazaar: The Economies of Indian Calendar Art (Durham: Duke Univeristy Press, 2007), 7-13; for further discussion of Anand Patwardhan’s film, also see K. P. Jayasankar and Anjali Monteiro, A Fly in the Curry: Independent Documentary Film in India (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2016), 70.
[ii]Christopher Pinney, Photos of the Gods: The Printed Image and Political Struggle in India (London: Reaktion Books, 2003) and the review by Deepali Dewan in caa.reviews (December 2, 2004), doi: 10.3202/caa.reviews.2004.98, http://www.caareviews.org/reviews/703.
[iii]Quoted in James Estrin, “Connecting Hindu Gods and Humans,” New York Times Lens blog, September 14, 2013.
[iv]Malcolm Daniel, Juror Statement, Curator’s Choice, First Place, Center Santa Fe, 2014.
[v] For the video, see http://robertofarruggio.com/Darshan.
[vi]Jain, Gods in the Bazaar, 198-99.
[viii]In addition to Jain, Gods in the Bazaar, and Pinney, Photos of the Gods, see for example, Karline McLain, India’s Immortal Comic Books: Gods, Kings, and Other Heroes (Bloomington: Indiana University Press). A new generation of Indian artists embracing street art and traditional craft forms visibly emerged after the popular exhibition Kitsch Kitsch Hota Hai; Kitsch and the Contemporary Imagination was mounted at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi in 2001.
Manjari Sharma (born and raised in Mumbai, India) makes work that is rooted in portraiture addressing issues of identity, multiculturalism, and personal mythology. Her work has been recognized, awarded, published and exhibited internationally. She is represented in New York City by ClampArt gallery and Richard Levy Gallery based in New Mexico. Before moving to the United States of America, she worked at The Times of India as a photo journalist, and the South Asian photo-magazine Better Photography. She holds a bachelors degree in Visual Communication from S.N.D.T University, Mumbai and a BFA in photography from Columbus College of Art and Design in Columbus, Ohio.
Stephen C. Pinson is Curator at the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Photographs. Prior to joining the Metropolitan, Pinson worked at The New York Public Library, serving as the Robert B. Menschel Curator of Photography, and as the Miriam & Ira D. Wallach Assistant Director for Art, Prints and Photographs. A recognised scholar of nineteenth century photography, he holds an MA in Art History from the University of Texas at Austin and a PhD in Art History from Harvard.